Last spring was supposed to be the year the Toronto Maple Leafs emerged as true Stanley Cup contenders, but instead they failed to move past Round 1 for the fifth straight season.
Heading into the 2021-22 campaign, the pressure is now palpable with that loss to Montreal still fresh.
Wayne Gretzky knows a thing or two about pressure.
“I thought a little bit about that scenario of Toronto, when they lost to Montreal in the spring and I was trying to compare it to maybe something that we went through in Edmonton,” Gretzky said during an appearance on The FAN Morning Show on Tuesday when asked about the Maple Leafs’ mounting pressure. “And probably the closest scenario that I could come up with was 1982.”
That year, the club went into the season with Stanley Cup-sized expectations, but fell short in the first round with a Game 5 loss to the Los Angeles Kings. Questions emerged about the core — whether it was too offensive-minded, whether it needed to be broken up in favour of building up the blue line.
“Thankfully, (then-Oilers head coach Glen Sather) was the guy that really took on the pressure and the workload and took all that off of his players, and we were able to just go out and compete and become the team that we became,” said Gretzky.
That team, of course, became the mighty Edmonton dynasty of the 1980s. The 1983 season saw them reach the Cup Final, and lose, before going back and winning two consecutive Stanley Cups in 1984 and 1985 followed by two more in 1987 and 1988.
In Toronto, few players have been scrutinized under the microscope as closely as Leafs forward Mitch Marner, whose post-season scoring struggles have been well-documented — he’s emerged from two consecutive first-round losses without a goal.
“He’s not in uncommon territory,” said Gretzky, who will be doling out plenty of insights and advice this upcoming season in his new role as an analyst with the TNT broadcast team.
The Great One recounted playoff scoring struggles of his own during those challenging series in the early 1980s. He reflected on the advice given to him at the time by former assistant coach John Muckler.
“He said, ‘Listen, the best advice I can give you is, I know you’re pressing and I know you’re trying to score, but we don’t need you to score a lot. We just need you to get one big goal or one big play,'” he said. “And once you do that, it’s going to take and relieve all the pressure off of you as an individual. And it’s going to give such an uplift to the hockey club.”
Said Gretzky of Marner: “We’ve all sort of gone through that before, but he’s such a good player and such a competitor and so much fun to watch. I’m sure that he’s going to rebound and, you know, I always pull for good guys to do well, so I’m pulling for him and I hope he gets that one big goal that sort of takes all the pressure off of him. And he’ll see that enormous relief not only from the fans, but from his teammates, and that’ll go a long way for him.”